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In what will probably become one of his defining speeches on Christian-Muslim relations, Pope Benedict XVI ignited a hornets' nest by incorporating a quotation from a 14th-century Orthodox Byzantine emperor alleging that the Prophet Muhammad promoted "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
The pontiff is neither na ve nor a fool. Everything that is ever said by or on behalf of the pope is calculated. He was aware that offensive selective quotes can be found to demonize any religion and that this intervention would hardly promote interfaith dialogue. The pope also knows that in historical terms Christianity would hardly qualify as a religion of tolerance.
Nor is Islam a monolithic religion. It incorporates a wide variety of interpretations of the Koran with starkly differing approaches prevailing at various periods. For example during the so-called Golden Age in Spain, Christian Crusaders were brutally exterminating Muslims and Jews in the name of God, at the same time as Jews and Muslims were coexisting in relative harmony.
The pope's intervention was designed to convey a message. He and his Vatican advisers must have known that this speech would enrage Muslims and lead to a disproportionate response. Yet, despite the murder of a nun, the torching of churches and calls for the pontiff to be beheaded, he refused to retract his remarks. He merely stated that he did not endorse the quote about the prophet and was "deeply sorry" for the pain it caused Muslims.
The pope was at pains to reiterate his central message that violence separates faith from reason, and that jihad or religiously motivated violence are contrary to God's will. He insisted that if dialogue was to be meaningful, Christians and Muslims must be enabled to talk in an open manner.
Today, most Christians oppose violence, but many Moslems endorse the violent jihadist upsurge and tolerate terrorism. The obscene hatred that spews from numerous imams against infidels, and Jews in particular, inevitably culminates with violence.
The first major global manifestation of such violence in our times was the fatwa issued against a lapsed Muslim, Salman Rushdie, calling for his execution for having written a satire on Muhammad. Since then, violence has become par for the course, with many Islamic clerics competing with one another to sanctify martyrdom to promote the faith. Moderate Muslims are intimidated and remained in the closet even when murderous Islamic bodies carry out acts of terror.
The incredible cowardice displayed by Western leaders in the face of the religiously inspired violence over the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad demonstrated the extent to which Europeans, in particular, have simply capitulated to brutal intimidation. This was also exemplified when, in the face of Muslim threats of violence, the Berlin Opera House recently cancelled a performance of a Mozart opera containing offensive satiric references to Jesus and Muhammad.
IN THIS environment, it is somewhat sickening to observe Western politicians and religious leaders monotonously repeating the mantra that contemporary Islam is a religion of peace.
The reality is that many Muslims including those in Europe and in other democratic countries, who enjoy the privileges denied to "infidels" in Islamic countries, either endorse or remain silent in the face of the brutal violence, intolerance and triumphalism expressed by their clerics and lay leaders.
Shi'ites and Sunnis alike are subject to brainwashing by extremist mullahs in the cult of death and martyrdom. Not surprisingly, the more impressionable youngsters succumb to the indoctrination with a number actually becoming perpetrators of terrorism. If these trends are not soon reversed, violent confrontations will inevitably erupt between Muslim minorities and the societies hosting them.
Clearly Pope Benedict XVI is concerned that, at a time when secularism is undermining Christianity, Islamic fundamentalists are making dramatic inroads and beginning to constitute a real threat to the Church, especially in Europe.
He is distressed that the world remains silent while Christians in Muslim countries are being persecuted. When a Muslim converting to Christianity in Afghanistan is condemned to be beheaded; when churches and houses of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jews are set aflame; when Muslim minorities in Europe brutally reject democratic procedures and agitate toward imposing Sharia law; when imams openly endorse terror; when Anjem Choudray, head of an extremist Muslim group, calls for the pontiff to be executed at a rally outside Westminster Abbey - Pope Benedict finally came to the realization that continued appeasement spells disaster for the Church.
The pope's extraordinary intervention is his way of saying enough is enough. His clear underlying message is to indulge in a dialogue of faith and reason which would lead to a demand for reciprocity, insisting that Islamic countries provide other religions with the same rights Muslim minorities enjoy in Christian nations.
WHERE SHOULD Jews stand in relation to this? Obviously with Muslims loudly proclaiming that the pope is a Zionist stooge and is being manipulated by the Jews, we have no reason to become embroiled in this conflict.
At the same time, any initiative which exposes the lie that Islam as practiced today is a religion of peace, warrants our support.
In this context, it was appalling that Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar degraded us by sending a demeaning communication disassociating himself from the pope to a Qatari Islamic cleric renowned for advocating violence and suicide bombings.
To curry favor and gain newspaper headlines, some of the Jewish interfaith bodies have also lately issued bizarre statements about peace-loving Muslims.
Today, those Western leaders lacking the courage to publicly support the pontiff are upholding a form of political correctness and doing themselves a disservice. By kowtowing to blackmail and refusing to condemn Islamic violence, they are encouraging the fanatics into believing that their intimidating tactics will achieve their objective of subjugating the world.
I am no champion of popes. But on the same grounds that we condemn the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust, we should commend Pope Benedict for having had the courage to confront the Islamist menace which today threatens civilization and Jews in particular.
For that reason, on this occasion, I have no hesitation in saying "Bravo Papa!"
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and is a veteran Jewish international leader. [email protected]